Toyo Eatery is 'Best Restaurant in the Philippines' and one of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants

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It takes a place like Toyo Eatery, the new restaurant by Chef Jordy Navarra and now one of the 50 best in Asia, to dare to be inventive with Filipino food without losing sight of the traditional flavors we crave. Photo by JL JAVIER

Macau (CNN Philippines Life) — “Maybe I should push someone into the pool later,” Jordy Navarra says out loud, as he and his wife May look out of my hotel room at the Wynn Palace in Macau. Dressed in slippers and swim shorts, the two are dressed more for an afternoon at the beach or a quiet night at home. A few floors down is the pool area where party preparations are happening for the 50 Best Restaurants in Asia awards. It is not their first time attending the ceremony, as their restaurant, Toyo Eatery, was awarded the Miele One to Watch restaurant for 2018. Their presence at this year’s awards, however, marks their induction into the actual list of 50. 

With just a few hours to go before they find out what their magic number will be, both May and Jordy Navarra chat a little about Toyo Eatery, the team that makes it what it is, and what their aspirations are for the future.

Has it really been three years since you opened?

May: Three days short of three years to be exact. We opened on March 29, 2016.

What was life like then, with a restaurant underway?

Jordy: Pretty much the same as it is now, but different. Like the last stretch of anything about to open, we were busy with things around the restaurant that still had to finish being constructed. While that was happening, there was a lot of cooking going on, and a lot of prep to be done. Now that I think about it though, the best thing about this time three years ago was the crew with me. They’re still the same people we hang around.

Toyo Eatery's May and Jordy Navarra. Photo by MEIGAN BUTALID

For those that have eaten at Toyo, one thing people seem to remark on is the energy of the service. It’s not what you would expect of a fine dining restaurant.

Jordy: I’m a believer in the idea that fine dining doesn’t necessarily equate to formal dining anymore. Fine dining can take so many forms that don’t fall under the old world idea of white-linen covered tables anymore. I wouldn’t say formality is non-existent — the rigidness of it just isn’t required anymore.  A fine dining experience doesn’t have to be fussy. In Toyo’s case, that experience is more about the food and the service.

How do you explain that idea to your team?

May: This is going to sound cliché, but we really just tell them to be themselves. This isn’t as easy as it sounds given how service has been, and still continues to be, seen in the Philippines. It’s little things like if they aren’t comfortable explaining dishes in English, they don’t have to. When did that become standard practice anyway? Or if they want to explain a dish side-by-side a casual chat with the guests, we don’t stop them. Some were shy about it at the beginning, but it’s an idea that they’ve really come to embrace.

Since being awarded the Miele One to Watch award last year, has there been any significant changes in terms of the restaurant’s operations?

May: Not really. We’re still doing what we’ve always been doing, with improvements here and there along the way. No grand changes or anything, because if we were recognized last year at the awards, I guess that means we were doing something right?

Team Toyo at the Asia's 50 Best announcement party. From left: JP Cruz, sous chef and business partner, May and Jordy Navarra, and Edmund Marce, junior sous chef. Photo by MICHELLE AYUYAO

Good point. It’s worth noting that you’ve worked with quite a number of people in the last couple of months. Can you run me by some of the restaurants Toyo has worked with?

Jordy: We’ve been pretty lucky to share the kitchen alongside the likes of Locavore, Nouri, Sühring, Mume, Labyrinth, JL Studio, Hertog Jan, and Florilege. They’re all cool.

You’ve traveled to several countries in the past couple of months, for work and otherwise. What would you say is the best place you’ve visited in the past year.

Jordy and May: Copenhagen.

Ah, a unanimous answer.

Jordy: The impact of Copenhagen on me was quite like my first visit to Japan. You know that feeling when you’re in a place and while you’re there, you already want to go back. It was cool, the food was great, and it was all food I could relate to. It’s interesting that so many immigrants have such a presence there, and push the conversation about food forward.

It’s a whole movement happening there.

Jordy: It is! It’s kind of like how being a writer in Paris was a thing. There was that period of romanticism, Belle Époque, existentialism, and so on. So it was writing movements with Paris as the center of the pulse of those movements. As far as food goes, Copenhagen’s vibrancy is a movement on its own with progressive dining, in the way that Spain was the center of food’s movement at the height of molecular gastronomy.

The garden vegetable salad is inspired by the vegetables mentioned in the folk song "Bahay Kubo." Photo by JL JAVIER

What do you think is the prevalent food movement right now?

Jordy: As the community of cooks grows, I would have to say that sustainable dining is at the core of it all. In several cases, diners might equate sustainable dining with pushing the vegetable agenda, but the discussion on sustainability digs so much deeper than that. Things like responsible consumerism and proper waste management are aspects vital to dining right now.

How does Toyo fall under this?

May: We’ve been trying to be more mindful of our waste and consumption. In the last couple of months alone, we’ve been able to audit our trash, and from seven garbage bags a day, we’ve cut it down to just one. There is still a lot to do, but the initial implementation of food waste management has proven that it isn’t as difficult as we thought it would be. It helps that everyone on our team is so open-minded about bettering our consumer habits.

How do you see Toyo growing in the coming years?

Jordy: I don’t think we see growth coming in the form of more outlets. Our team is collectively drawn to the idea of growth seen in how our ideas and practices can mature. May just mentioned this earlier but I’m going to go back anyway to being responsible consumers. The dream, rather, the goal is to become efficient on the back end, in order to become self-sufficient. Hopefully this manifests in closing the loop as far as wastage goes.

Since opening in 2016, Toyo has shared their kitchen alongside culinary luminaries such as Nouri, Sühring, Mume, Labyrinth, JL Studio, Hertog Jan, and Florilege. Photo by JL JAVIER

We have just a couple of hours to go before the awarding begins. Before we find out how Toyo fares, tell me what was it like when you broke the news to your team?

May: One of our bakers is pregnant, so we gathered the whole team at lunch and said it was time for her to reveal the sex of her baby. She did that. It’s a girl! And since everyone was there, we announced that we were in, but told them to just keep the news to themselves first. Then we celebrated with free-flowing dimsum.

Jordy: At our pre-service briefing, a lot of the guys took the time to talk about what being part of Toyo means to them.

Do you think there are big changes to come for Toyo, following this award?

May: We are thrilled to be receiving this award. Also, quite nervous. We will continue to do our best, and work the way we’ve been working, but I don’t think our philosophies will change. This award was the unexpected bonus to come from that. And, like I said, I guess this means we’re doing something right in one way or another.

As of just a few minutes ago, Toyo Eatery was awarded the 43rd place on the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, making it the best restaurant in the Philippines of 2019. In the last five years, only Chele Gonzalez’s Vask (2016 and 2017), and Tony Boy Escalante’s Antonio’s (2015) have made the list, albeit for a short while. As of late, Jordy has not pushed anyone into the pool — yet.